25-Year-Old Yukon First Nations “Cutting Edge” Self-Government Agreements

Twenty-five years later, the work continues.

This is how some describe the implementation of modern treaties among Yukon First Nations. Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the coming into force of the final and self-government agreements.

These agreements set out the rights of First Nations to their traditional territories.

For the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, the Teslin Tlingit Council, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation, February 14, 1995 was the day they began to implement their treaties.

Seven other Yukon First Nations will sign their final and self-government agreements in the next few years, and three have not yet reached agreements with the federal and territorial governments.

A celebration in 1995, to mark the signing and adoption of self-government agreements in the Yukon. (Radio Canada)

CBC Yukon host Leonard Linklater spoke this week with several people involved in the negotiations in the 1990s. They talked about how the deals were reached and where things stand today.

Comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Shirley Adamson, former community negotiator for the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council: “We were the first governments in this territory before contact, and the Indian Act interfered with all of that and took away authority from traditional governments and traditional heads of government, many of whom were matriarchs. And basically we placed all of our traditional laws with the Indian Act which was actually not a law that was in the best interest of the aboriginal people.

“So a lot of people were talking about how our living conditions were so terrible, we couldn’t practice the traditions of our ancestors. We were basically homeless in our homelands. We couldn’t hunt, we couldn’t fishing, unless we were either status Indians or we were going to buy hunting and fishing licenses Many people who were not covered by the privileges of the Indian Act were actually criminalized for practicing way of life of their ancestors since time immemorial.We were losing a lot of control over our children, our children were being removed from our homes and communities.

“So all of that finally came to fruition with people saying we need to take better care of ourselves than those who have a fiduciary duty to take care of us are doing for us right now.”

Robert Bruce, Jr., Former Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation“I thought we were signing to break away from Indian Affairs to have our own self-government like our elders had in the past – and that was my thinking. So that was key for me.

Robert Bruce Jr., second from left, attends the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief and Council Swearing-In Ceremony at Old Crow in 2018. (Alexandra Byers/CBC News)

“The chiefs before me worked a lot on that and sometimes it was a tough negotiation to get it right. And I think we got it right and we’re moving forward.”

Paul Birckel, Former Chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations“I thought we were signing a good agreement, which would give a lot of hope and… which would help most of our people.

“I was very, very emotional at the time because I thought back to all the work that had been done and all the number of people who had worked there and died.

“I had no difficulty signing the agreement because we needed something, some kind of agreement to help our people.”

“I thought we were signing a good agreement, which would give a lot of hope and … which would help most of our people,” said Paul Birckel, former chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Tim Koepke, former federal negotiator“This wasn’t a one-time real estate transaction. It was a continuous, evolving relationship improvement, and it’s all about relationships.

“The Yukon is considered cutting edge and it was then. And many of the policies that are included in comprehensive claims in other parts of Canada, particularly in British Columbia, derive many of their good features from these things that we adopted and negotiated in the Yukon.

Shirley Adamson: “People still expect the negotiations to continue today. There are still a lot of things to talk about. We still haven’t seen any major changes.

“Many of the commitments that were made in the Umbrella Final Agreement were not addressed in a timely manner. Other governments are subject to change, the policies of any government in power at that time we sometimes led to spending an incredible amount of time defending our rights.”

Shirley Adamson, former community negotiator for the Ta’an Kwach’an Council. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

Paul Birkel“I think the only problem we have is that our government’s interpretation of the agreements[s] may not be what we agreed to at the table. So I mean, some of those things probably still need to be ironed out.”

Tim Koepke: “Canada has had public government for 153 years now. The Yukon has had it for 120 years. Pick up the paper every night and you’re still not convinced that public governments are right. So we have to be a little patient. as First Nations governments build capacity, create partnerships, learn to cooperate, and other non-Aboriginal community members also learn about partnership.

“The job will never end, if it goes as it should.”

Paul Birkel“The deal was not just for First Nations people, but also for people across the economy. Because all of our boards and committees were all set up so that none of our First Nations or white people in the territory have any say in what was going on in government.

“So it brought in a lot of people, not just our own people, but everybody – and I think we’re better at it now.

Shirley Adamson“I spend a lot of time working with young people. I give a lot of lectures in college. It always surprises me how few, especially First Nations people, are not fully aware of land claims and the potential of land claim agreements to govern their lives or influence their lives today.

Youth from all First Nations celebrating the dance in traditional dress. (Philippe Morin/Radio-Canada)

“I think we have to deal with that. I think we have to deal with the fact that very few architects, including the leaders of the time and the negotiators, are brought up to talk about the spirit and the l intent of agreements because I don’t think anyone knows better than them what spirit and intent are, so we have to do that.

Robert Bruce, Jr.“I want to say today that we have about 15 young people who are in middle school who speak their language, and their teachers should be very proud of that. And I’m proud of all of them for taking on this task.

“That’s what the land claim is about – going back to our culture where the elders were before. So now that we have these young people learning their language…it will help them move forward in the life. “

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera